Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The evolution of contextual targeting

By Colette Munnelly, Solutions Engineer, Xandr

With the loss of third-party cookies scheduled for 2023, industry players have been actively working to uncover new innovative solutions that take a consumer-first approach and set the entire ecosystem up for success. Recently, Xandr announced its multi-pronged approach to identity and while there are many options one of the solutions we’re regularly seeing discussed and utilised across a number of markets today, is contextual advertising. 

In Xandr’s recent survey, 74% of respondents said they would leverage contextual solutions, topping the poll ahead of first-party data and alternative identifiers[1].  It is clear that as we head into the ‘new world’ contextual advertising is going to play an increasingly important role in marketers’ buying strategies.

Contextual advertising itself is not a new solution; the original method of key word targeting was previously a favoured tactic for marketers looking to reach the right audience in brand safe environments. Due to the tightening of data and privacy regulations, we are seeing a resurgence in popularity, but this is contextual targeting with a difference.

With many now believing key word targeting to be too blunt of an instrument, not allowing marketers the freedom to appreciate the sentiment of a page and how that fits in with their brand and restricting the flow of money to our publishers,  contextual partners are offering a diverse set of targeting capabilities.

So what does next generation contextual targeting look like?   

Simple but effective

Today many contextual providers use additional signals that come from outside of the content – meaning they are able to offer segments not entirely reliant on keywords. These segments can perform just as well as cookie based  behavioural audiences but they are tied to an ad impression and not a user ID ensuring they are more privacy compliant.

When it comes to processing these signals at scale, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely to be used. The power of AI is required to harness the scale of machines that think like humans but also have the advantage of speed – otherwise it ends up with arbitrary targeting that does more harm than good for our ecosystem.

A multitude of offerings

As well as leveraging the power of AI, we are seeing a new wave of contextual providers employ the following techniques to reach new audiences for media buyers:

1) Semantic – These solutions derive a deep understanding from the content of a page and are able to understand words and sentences in context.  This helps reach audiences in an editorial context where they are likely to be receptive to the creative messaging. It goes back to the saying – right place, right time. 

2) Signals – These solutions look at external signals on the bid request such as the user’s location, the device they are using and the time of day to inform targeting. You will be surprised at just how much valuable targeting information there is if you know how to separate the signal from the noise.

3) Feedback loop – These companies are finding out what works for an advertiser’s campaign, potentially even from an established campaign, and then discovering content that has similar attributes to build a real time feedback loop. In this way, a campaign is targeted to the most performant inventory from the get-go, and machine learning means these segments can be constantly updated. This is a good tactic for prospecting, performance campaigns and is driving conversions for brands today. 

4) Zeitgeist – These providers can analyse social data to understand what content a brand’s community is consuming and sharing online. From this data, they can build new targeting segments to predict where a brand’s audience can be found, or find new audiences that are likely to engage with the brand.

Looking ahead to a new future

Now is the time for marketers to take a deeper dive into the contextual landscape as they ready themselves for the identity shift to come. These solutions are available now and can be seamlessly activated via data segments or deal IDs. My advice? Test and learn.  Test with browsers that don’t currently support third-party cookies. These make a great testing ground as they allow marketers to consider the benchmarks and KPIs that will be meaningful for their campaigns moving forward.

What won’t change in the cookieless world is the need marketers have for differentiation. It won’t change the fact that publishers need funding from advertising to survive. And, perhaps most importantly, consumers are still going to want a creative advertising experience, tailored to them, their needs, their likes. Contextual targeting is a strong option that solves for each of these needs, offering marketers more choice in how to reach their audience consequently providing the funds publishers need to continue offering their consumers the diverse and creative content they enjoy today.  As the programmatic industry evolves let’s work together to push creativity boundaries for clients and campaigns and what better place to begin than contextual advertising.


[1] Xandr’s Demystifying Curated Marketplaces guide, p5

*Xandr is a client of Bluestripe Communications, owned by Bluestripe Group, the owner of NDA.

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